Tuesday, June 06, 2006

All Aboard

Yesterday at 7:40am train #23 pulled out of the Beijing rail station bound for Ulan Bator, Mongolia. It seemed that the train was about half full of Chinese and Mongolian travelers and traders, and about half Wai guo ren of various degrees of shabbiness. One of the train attendants took a photo of me in front of the carriage, and when I saw it I noticed that I didn’t look as happy as someone who’s getting something she’s wanted for almost 15 years ought to look. I knew that I was excited; I think Beijing just really took it out of me. I had a great time seeing friends and revisiting my past, but I think John and I are both really ready for the next phase of the adventure.

The two of us have a private compartment to ourselves. It’s a little cozy, but it’s fine. It has two beds, which double as seats during the day. It could be cozier still; many compartments have two sets of bunk beds, but we at least have a high ceiling. There’s lots of luggage space, and a small table with a thermos we can fill any time with boiling water from a samovar at the end of the carriage.

Everyone on the train seemed to deal with the excitement and the anxiety of departure differently. The child down the hall, known to us only as “Screech,” shrieked like someone had run over his puppy for about 100 kilometers. The two young techno guys next door (John dubbed them Dot and Com) yammered non-stop about the L.A. geek world with such maniac energy we wanted to bludgeon one of them to death with his own blackberry. John slept 11 hours (plus 12 at night), and I, happy to be off my feet for a whole day, made a little nest of reading material and caught up on my scribbling.

The scenery went from sooty gray urban fringes to mountainous countryside remarkably fast. On the way out of town, parts of the Great Wall (at Badaling, a part I had never been to) were spectacularly visible not far from the train. Mountains went to rolling farmland, and crops changed from rice to hardier plants that can survive the progressively flatter and drier land we passed through in northern China.

At about 8:30pm, we arrived at the Mongolian border, but we might as well have been 200 miles away. Customs officials came on the train and had us show our passports two separate times, and fill out multiple customs and health questionnaires. (One form seemed to be dealing with both, as it asked in one section if we were suffering from any mental illness, and in another if we were carrying any human tissue. John and I had a good giggle fit wondering about the possible connection between the two questions.) Then the train had to be taken to a giant shed where each car was raised up on a jack, with the passengers still in it, and the wheels were changed. I had no idea train wheels (called bogies) even were removable, but they have to be changed at the border because Mongolia Russia both use tracks a slightly different width from the rest of the world.

I wish I could tell you more about the train jack, but in fact, I slept through a lot of it. It was getting late at this point, and it was almost midnight when it was done. And we were only half through. We chugged about 20 minutes into Mongolia on our brand new wheels and stopped again, this time for Mongolian customs. There were more forms, and more questions, and even a half-hearted search. The upside of being the kind of person who looks like an easy mark for scam artists is that customs inspectors also seem to think I’m harmless, but even I got a quick rummage through my bag. John had to show the Japanese yen he said he had on him but we both agreed the woman really just seemed to want to know what Japanese yen looked like. It was hard to get annoyed about being kept up late going through my dirty clothes because they were so nice about it. The baby-faced Mongolian man who did our final passport check thanked us profusely, and as he was leaving, entreated us to “sleep now,” putting his hands under his cheek in the international gesture for slumber, just in case we hadn’t understood. John and I have decided that Mongolians are a little quirky and very friendly and without even having gotten off the train, we like the place already.

Here are my train photos!

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